Unexpected Donor Gives £250,000 to Help Booksellers Struggling Through Coronavirus Crisis

- by Michael Stillman


A fundraiser to help British booksellers struggling through the coronavirus epidemic received a surprising £250,000 (US $310,000) contribution from a mystery donor. Who was that mystery donor? The answer proved to be as surprising as the gift, and not everyone was delighted by the answer.


Three people involved in the British book trade decided to do a fund raiser to help booksellers get through the difficulties caused by the coronavirus shut down of much business activity. The three were Gayle Lazda of the London Review Bookshop, Zeljka Marosevic, publisher of Daunt Books, and Kishani Widyaratna, Commissioning Editor of Picador, a Macmillan imprint. Their aim was to try to raise £10,000. They greatly exceeded their goal.


The three chose The Book Trade Charity to administer the funds. This charity normally focuses on the personal needs of individual booksellers, particularly those who are ill or have retired from the business without sufficient funds to get by. However, these are unusual times, and bookseller needs are greater than normal.


The fund drive already was a big success before the mystery donor appeared. Perhaps because of the publisher connections of some of the participants, they received some major contributions from them, including Penguin, Macmillan, and Hachette. Penguin alone contributed £60,000. The fund had already reached £130,000 when the surprise donor came along. The donor chose to remain anonymous, with The Book Trade Charity revealing only that it was “committed to independent bookshops as part of a mixed bookselling economy.” That statement added to the irony when they were finally forced to reveal the name of the donor. It was Amazon.


Amazon may have an okay relationship with publishers, but booksellers are another story. To many, they are the cause of their problems. They have been a fierce competitor, using their size and lack of need for a physical presence in the communities they serve to undercut independent shops. For some booksellers, they are the enemy. Undoubtedly, some question Amazon's commitment to independent bookshops or a “mixed bookselling economy.”


Marosevic and Widyaratna both expressed surprise at the name of the donor. Widyaratna said that while “stunned,” he was glad the money would be put to good use. Marosevic noted that “personal feelings aside,” he hoped that booksellers would still apply for grants. Bookseller Lazda expressed stronger opinions. Not mincing words, she posted to Twitter, “I'm glad that this money is going to a good cause, but there is no greater threat to high street bookselling than Amazon, and their labour practices are a well-documented disgrace.” She followed that up with a second “tweet,” “I know that there is a huge strength of feeling against Amazon among booksellers, and that the horrible irony of this donation will be lost on none of us, but I hope it won't stop any of us supporting the work of the Book Trade Charity, and applying to the fund if you need it.” She also revealed that she almost followed up an earlier “tweet” thanking the mystery donor when it was still a mystery with “unless it's Bezos in which case, just pay your taxes pal.” Obviously, there is still some hostility there between independent booksellers and Amazon.


The relationship between Amazon and rare and antiquarian booksellers is, for the most part, somewhat different than that with independent sellers of new books. For the latter, Amazon is pure competition. It is more of a “hate” relationship. For the antiquarian and rare book sellers, it's more nuanced, a “love-hate” relationship. They have been able to sell their books on Amazon, and even more so on AbeBooks, now an Amazon subsidiary. Many are pleased with these venues that enable them to sell their books to a wider audience. For some, it is their major source of income. Other such booksellers, on the other hand, have been displeased with Amazon's terms and commissions and express sentiments more akin to those of Ms. Lazda. Perspectives vary.